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Buk-M1-2 air defence system in 2010. (Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia)
The news about Kherson has been one of the most significant wins for the Ukrainian Army, and now that NASAMS have been delivered to their forces, it’s just a matter of time before they can fully dominate the air battle against Russia. In new research, the Ukrainians were shown using the Buk air defense missiles, the missile that was used to shoot down the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014.
The Buk Missile system is a soviet-era defense system developed to replace the old Kub. Its official designation is the “9K37,” with a reporting name of SA-11 or “Gadfly.” The Kub Missile first entered service in 1980 with the Soviet Army. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Buk was distributed to other countries like Egypt, Finland, Cyprus, Belarus, Georgia, India, Vietnam, North Korea, and Venezuela.
The Buk fires the 9M38 missiles and is a single-stage solid-fuel missile. It’s quite similar to US-made Tartar and the Navy’s standard air defense missiles. It has semi-active radar guidance, which is excellent for mid-range combat. It can attack targets at a range of 3.4-20.5 km. The maximum engagement altitude is about 25 km, with a hit probability of 70-93%.
“The physical destruction, along with the electronic disruption and suppression of SAM systems in the north and northeast, left the Mikoyan Mig-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters of the Ukrainian Air Force with the task of providing air defence over most of the country for the first few days of the war. The Ukrainian air defenses progressively recovered as jammed and damaged radar systems were reset and assets were rapidly repositioned…”
Their research also confirmed how the Buk Missiles were deployed to provide an effective defense against Russians’ attack on key Ukrainian cities and facilities in March and April. However, there were more powerful ballistic missiles that made more of a dent during the confrontation.
“The SA-11 ‘Buk’ SAM systems provided the bulk of the anti-aircraft threat near the frontlines to keep Russian fast jets and helicopters flying low or further back behind Russian lines. The long-range S-300PS/PT and S-300V1 SAM systems are more capable against cruise missiles and the Tochka-U ballistic missiles than the SA-11, and provide coverage over a wider area.”
During the early stages of the war, The Su-34 fighter bombers damaged about 100 Ukrainian radars at an altitude of 12,000 feet. This allowed Russians to attack S-300 operators and gain an advantage over Ukrainians. At the time, The Ukrainian Air Force was still scrambling to fight with their limited fighter jets. However, this was when the Russian ground troops also faced unexpected resistance from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), which helped support the lagging aerial capabilities of Zelensky’s troops.
According to the research, Russian ground troops had to depend on their fighter pilots to keep their positions. With a scattered distribution of fighter jets, the Russians experienced the decimation of both their elite pilots and standard combat planes.
The NASAMS would undeniably allow Ukrainians to push further, but the ‘Buk’ SAM systems have been a reliable ally since the beginning of the war. So the challenge for Ukraine, for now, is the operations around their resupply.
“Eight months of high-intensity combat have consumed unprecedented and unforeseen quantities of interceptor missiles, and Western allies have few ways to supply more directly or indirectly. Western militaries have invested very little in production of medium-and-short range GBAD systems since the end of the Cold War due to overwhelming air superiority in every conflict since then.”
Aside from the cost of NASAMS, it’s also more practical to support local repair and supply of the 9M38 missiles for the Buk, which could have a long-term benefit for Ukrainians are they are expected to continue defending against other potential threats like Russia, China, and Iran.
“If Ukrainian SAMs are allowed to run out of ammunition, then not only will Ukrainian infrastructure and other key target sets become dramatically more vulnerable to Russian missile strikes, but the Russian VKS fixed-wing fleet would suddenly again be able to start penetrating deep into Ukrainian-controlled airspace at medium and high altitudes.”
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